Those of you who know me personally or have been reading Gaming Trend for the last decade know that, other than my secret identity as a jet-setting world-renown video game reviewer / entrepreneur, my alter ego is that of a Network Engineer. I’ve since moved on to being a Manager over the Network Operations Engineers that run one of the largest networks in the world, but I’ve not lost all of my technical teeth quite yet. Unfortunately all of my experience and certifications mean absolutely nothing when it comes to my own home network. Knowing how to dissect the TCP stack, identify the fragmentation bits, and analyzing the packet structure doesn’t insulate me from crap hardware and shoddy customer service.
Reaching back to just before the Wireless G specification was ratified, I was searching for a good wireless home router. All accounts point to the Linksys WRT54G – a two-antenna wireless router with a Linux-powered backend that was supposedly the cream of the crop. I purchased the first version of the device on its release date in December of 2002. My woes began immediately afterwards. Constant reboots, bugs, missing features, shoddy security, inexplicably back-to-defaults self-resets, and far more caused nothing but heartburn for me. Having owned decent Linksys devices in the past, I was baffled just how bad this device really was. Calls to support were filled with apologies and anger, but very light on actual solutions. Unfortunately, this isn’t the end of this tale of woe.
On March 20th, 2003 Linksys was purchased for a whopping $500 million in common stock by networking-powerhouse Cisco. You’d figure with Cisco at the helm we’d see an increase in quality overall, but the reverse was true. Calls to Cisco eventually replaced my WRT54Gv1 with a WRT54Gv5. The newer firmwares brought a few new features, correcting some of the security issues, but the reboots and resets were joined by chronic wireless and DNS disconnection issues. Another replacement brought me v6, but by this point I even had Cisco recommend I try some of the hacked firmware out on the market. I shouldn’t have to turn to the homebrew community to fix a then-priced $150 dollar router. I decided to introduce my WRT54Gv6 to a new set of letters and numbers – M82A1. Nothing was quite as therapeutic as putting .50 calibur sniper rounds through the shoddy plastic housing.
My next at-bat was with my current router – the Netgear WPN824v2, powered by Ruckus Wireless. Stepping up to the plate as a Wireless G solution and combining it with MiMo, Netgear promised a stable platform. Amazingly, for the first six months I owned the device it was rock solid and I had absolutely zero issues. Shortly thereafter my headaches began again in earnest – reboots, random wireless disconnects, packetloss, slow DNS, signal degradation, FTP and Winsock issues, and it was completely unusable with streaming. Calls to customer service were absolutely futile, with technical support reporting that these were known issues, but refusing to do anything about it but suggest their newest shovelware as replacements.
I’d like to welcome the Belkin N750DB Wireless Dual-Band N+ Router to my home. God help me…
The first thing I noticed while researching the most recent breed of routers is that we’ve gone from Apple-knockoff white to sleek black pretty much across the board. The N750DB is no exception. Let’s take a look at the feature list from the back of the box:
- MultiBeam Technology
High-powered signal for multiple devices
- Dual-Band Speed
Up to 300Mbps (2.4GHz) + 450Mbps (5GHz)*
- 2 USB Ports
For wireless printing and storage
- 4 Gigabit Ports
For ultra-fast file sharing
- Easy Setup
EASY START gets you set up in 3 easy steps
- Preset Security
Security settings are preset to get you up and running safely
- 2-Year Limited Warranty
With the back of the box propaganda fully in mind, I unpacked the box and saw the promised “Unleash your network” phrase – I’m just hoping the damned network functions at this point.
In the Box:
Opening the box I was greeted by something that made the ex-black hat inside me dance with glee – Belkin includes a sticker with the Network SSID, Password, and Security Type on a small card. This means that the SSID and Password are not universal (and well known), but instead are randomly generated. While you can change these in the setup process, most people won’t, so it was already a step up from the shoddy security on my previous devices.
Inside the box and printed on the left was a simple three step pictorial of how easy it is to get started. Plug in power, plug in your network cables, and run the disc in your PC – done! We’ll have to see how that goes when we get there. Picking up the router itself, I found the CD with a #3 on the corner. With instructions on how to run the setup file if autorun didn’t engage explained on the sleeve, Belkin has a lot of faith in their three step pictorial instructions – there are no additional manuals in the box. Beyond the router and CD, there is a 6’ CAT 6 network cable, and the requisite power supply.
In the guts…the setup:
As I mentioned, there is very little in the box with this product. Running the CD brought me to some simple prompts that I just hammered past as would any typical user. At this point began “the prodding”. The modem began to reach out and try to discover just what my network looked like so it could essentially provision itself. The little icon spun and spun and just could not figure things out, despite the continuous ‘prodding’. At this point my curiosity took hold and I hit the log files:
Belkin Log File Starts…
Sunday, December 11, 11 10:44:19.971 – H: Wan connectivity check failed, no internet connection
Sunday, December 11, 11 10:44:26.341 – J: PPPOE failed: Default error
Sunday, December 11, 11 10:45:41.796 – G: No internet
Sunday, December 11, 11 10:45:41.799 – L: User advised to restart modem
Sunday, December 11, 11 10:45:41.799 – N: Unable to set new MAC address in router: No internet
Sunday, December 11, 11 10:49:43.549 – G: Three minute timer expired without connection
Sunday, December 11, 11 10:49:58.958 – L: User advised to restart modem
Sunday, December 11, 11 10:49:58.958 – J: PPPOE failed: Default error
Sunday, December 11, 11 10:50:52.065 – M: User advised to restart router
Sunday, December 11, 11 10:52:11.978 – O: Setup Success
Sunday, December 11, 11 10:52:11.979 – WnL2G2M1H1N1O1J2
Sure enough, the router prompted me to restart the router, and as you can see, in less than a minute we were on our way with a successful network discovery. I was now connected to “belkin.320” – my new router. I was rather surprised as this surpassed Cisco’s own “One Click Provision” system that has been integrated into all of their Linksys products, what happened next really surprised me.
The software installs a small daemon that runs in the tray that monitors the connection and the router itself. Before I could click on Advanced and begin to configure the router I was prompted that my router may not function correctly without a firmware update. Knowing the importance of a properly debugged OS, I allowed the device to update. Surprisingly, when it was finished, the modem simply stated that it was done. There was no hard reboot, no rough transition, and no loss of Internet connectivity through the process – it was simply ‘done’. I can count the number of devices that I’ve seen that sort of hot-failover on at the consumer level on zero hands – this was something unique.
We don’t fly “Stock” here:
I’m not the type to use a router in its stock mode – for one it’s a good idea to change the password, secure the SSID, set up MAC restrictions, and other security ‘best practices’ before you get out onto the Internet proper. The SSID is the broadcasted Service Set Identifier, or simple name that you connect to. Most networks send this out so the device can be discovered with a simple Windows scan, but it was my job to first change the name, and then turn off that broadcast. For some reason, trying to change the SSID kept opening up guide.opendns.com instead of the actual router config page. Trying to simply navigate to http://router, or clicking on “Advanced” on the CD and trying to go to the SSID adjustment section just wasn’t working according to Belkin’s suggestions. A quick scan of the online manual showed me that I could just as easily head to 192.168.2.1, but clearly it is strike one against the one-click easy setup model.
Hitting the SSID page I got to see the first solid example of the router’s dual band technology. With Dual Band, both 2.4GHz and 5GHz band devices can connect to the device independently. To ensure maximum flexibility, as well as being able to see both device antennae seperately, the router broadcasts two IDs. The stock is simply “Belkin” with the 5GHz band being named “Belkin.320”. I renamed them both, shut down the SSID broadcast, changed the password for joining the network (it supports every major security algorthym you’ll find on a device), and changed the password for the logging into the management console. The router saved the changes, performed a 60 second reboot, and was completely connected and ready to go.
My network is comprised of a Motorolla DOCSIS 3.0 modem, a Cisco 2950 switch, and this Belkin router, so I had to add some basic configuration to my switch to create a ‘Router on a Stick” setup. With this configuration in place, I was secure at a base level, so it was time to snoop around and see what other cool features this router brings to the table.
Belkin’s software daemon monitors the connection to the router, and with purpose. As you can see from the logs, I installed this device two months ago – I simply wanted to ensure that this device could withstand the rigors of a heavily active network. To assist with this, Belkin’s software runs routine scans to the router, adjusting the wireless channel automatically to ensure the fastest speed. Additionally, the router settings has a section called “Self Healing”. The Self Healing system allows you to reboot the system on a schedule to keep the network healthy. You can, of course, disable it, or you can set it to run up to daily at any point in 30 minute increments. The total reboot time is less than 30 seconds, so it behooves you to set it for a low-traffic point to keep network health high. The nice part is that the client will keep an eye on this for you, notifying you if action is needed or if action was automatically taken. In the past few months I’ve not had to take direct action but once.
If there is one thing that is certain as the rise and fall of the Sun, it is that you can and will be attacked while on the Internet. Most people have absolutely no idea that their computer is under assault as the built-in safety features of your OS or Antivirus/Firewall usually keeps your system safe. Just the same, it’s a good idea to keep an eye out for attacks to ensure your computer isn’t breached. In my case, within the first day of having my router up and running I found my first entry in the Firewall Log. I was hit by a Syn Flood attack that was mitigated by the router. It’s nice to see when things work as designed. This logging system can also be used to watch the 3-way-handshake setup and teardown should you have issues with connectivity (as you might with a VoIP gateway behind this router) to troubleshoot.
Moving video and paper:
Streaming content wirelessly through your network is a feature more and more used in home networks. Whether it is a home movie or the latest game trailer, it always looks better on the big screen, and that means slinging it through the air to your favorite console or network-enabled device. This router has a setting called Video Mover that enables you to use the USB ports on the rear of the router to connect to any mass storage device to create a Network Attached Storage-type setup. In my case, I’ve bypassed the wireless (though it works just fine) and was able to wirelessly stream videos with no issues. More importantly, I was able to connect my Western Digital MyBook external hard drive coupled with the Memory Safe software to automatically store backups through the network. While I personally use Ghost for this activity, it doesn’t hurt to have backups of your most precious documents and such captured automatically.
The last goodie contained in this router is the Print Zone. If you are inclined you can connect any USB printer to the Belkin router, enabling it to become an N-printer. This means you can print to the router wirelessly by providing a networked IP to connect to rather than having to map it to an always-on PC or Mac. Given the way my media closet is set up, this isn’t feasible long-term for my setup, but I did give the functionality a test and found it to be successful.
Wrapping up our Router Writeup:
Obviously, given the incredible difficulty I’ve had with previous routers, it is hard to ever feel secure in recommending one. It is the reason why I’m certain the folks at Belkin are wondering if I ever plan on writing this review. It is also the reason why I’ve waited so long before publishing it – I was waiting for the other shoe to drop. After putting literally over 100 Gigabytes of traffic through this router and constant use with streaming of Netflix throughout the house, backups, and much more, I found no particular aspect of this router lacking. As I seal up my media closet, I feel confident that I won’t need to open it back up to manually ‘poke’ this router. Before this, I wouldn’t have thought twice about Belkin (being that all of my certifications are for Cisco I’d be predisposed towards Linksys products), but I am happy to say that I was wrong. This device not only meets and exceeds my expectations, it also carries with it a few gems that make it shine above the competition. I’m shocked to be able to say that I heartily recommend the Belkin N750DB.